Thursday 3 September 2015

Were the Carry Ons Sexist?

It's an age old question that brings forth a remarkable number of opinions and points of view. No matter what people think, I'll always love the Carry Ons for the light-heartedness of it all, the quality of the comedy actors and the opportunity they provide to leave this dark world we all live in for a cosy wallow in nostalgia.

By all means the films are not perfect and they quite often reflect the times in which they were made, not to mention the views of those who produced them. There are elements in some of the films that make me a little queasy viewing in 2015 (Up The Jungle and Girls spring to mind) however for the most part they are still family friendly fun. My American partner was shocked recently to discover that the majority of the series entries are either rated U or PG. However compared to some of the cinema releases nowadays, I think the Carry Ons are pretty tame.

In terms of the main question I pose in this blog, it might be best to look at the roles the main actors played in the series. The three main actresses in the team (Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques) were all given a wide variety of roles to play with probably Sims playing the most diverse array of characters. While Barbara has been pigeon-holed as the fluffy, dumb blonde, she was often more powerful than the men, running rings around Sid and Bernie in Camping and being the cleverest agent of them all in Carry On Spying. The fact remains though that she was often cast as a decorative item and that's just not on. Not to say it doesn't still happen in films today right enough.

Hattie and Joan were often cast as disapproving harridans; matrons and middle-aged nagging wives. Complete cliches but of course these films were based on a catalogue of predictable cliches. While it does not do much for the female cause, the women they played were always smarter, quicker-witted and more self-sufficient than the men. Hattie played strong, impressive career women in the likes of Nurse, Doctor and Cabby. Joan struck a blow for women's rights in Carry On Regardless when she marched into the men only part of the labour exchange (yes, really). Despite this I am often uncomfortable with Joan and Hattie being stuck in the shrewish roles (Joan in Screaming being a prime example). They always give excellent performances but there was so much more to them than that. 

I love Dilys Laye and Liz Fraser together in Carry On Cruising however the fact remains that their basic premise in the film is to go on a cruise to meet husbands. We find out little about what these single women had achieved on their own merits. Women are often made out to be a bit odd if they are not interested in the opposite sex (June Jago's sister in Doctor or June Whitfield and Patricia Franklin as the women's lib representatives in Carry On Girls). 

Despite all this, there is evidence of strong female characters in the Carry Ons. In the very first, Hattie Jacques plays the medical officer who makes Kenneth Connor come to his senses. In Cabby, Hattie again plays a strong woman who sets up in business against her pig-ignorant husband to teach him a lesson (even if the end of the film sees the women rescued by the men). In Cowboy, Angela Douglas plays a gun-toting independent Annie Oakley and the following year, Fenella Fielding was in complete control as Valeria Watt in Screaming. I guess it's all swings and roundabouts but it's interesting nonetheless. 

The male characters in the Carry On films are generally idiots or ineffectual. Think of Kenneth Connor as Horace Strong or Frederick Bumble. Peter Butterworth as Pepe/Mario in Abroad or Bernard Bresslaw in At Your Convenience. The women they come up against often have the upper hand, however is it therefore sexist to show all the men as twerps? Possibly!

One thing that does clearly divide the sexes in the Carry Ons is the amount of flesh on display. Female characters are almost always employed for their looks, their appearances and their assets, while the men very seldom are. As Barbara Windsor's time with the Carry Ons reached a peak in the early 1970s, her characters stripped off more and more. By Carry On Abroad in 1972 and Dick two years later, very little at all was left to the imagination. Things never went as far as the Confessions films, but there was a definite trend for exploiting younger female actresses in that way. By Carry On Behind in 1975, nudity was much more commonplace, even including Kenneth WIlliams' backside (!) We must not forget though, that the very first scene of nudity in any of the Carry Ons came way back in 1959 when Phillips, Hawtrey, Williams and Connor shared that freezing cold shower in Carry On Constable. 

The jury is out for me. I feel such affection for the films and their stars that I'm probably far too biased to make a sound judgement call on this issue. As a social historian, these films provide a fascinating time capsule into a Britain that either never existed at all or is long gone. Were these films really representing British society as it was or as some people would have liked it to have been?

As a final point, although I think the films themselves are mostly pretty harmless, behind the camera there is an aspect that is deeply sexist and troubles me still. We all know the Carry On actors were paid relatively small sums for their appearances in the films with no repeat fees. On top of that however the regular female actors (Sims, Windsor and Jacques) were always paid around half the salary the main male actors were given. Irrespective of the fact that this is just plain wrong, it is made even more of a travesty when you think of how many great contributions these wonderfully talented women made and what a fundamentally important role they played in the success of the Carry Ons. 

Regardless of anything else discussed here, I think we can all agree that this last point is indeed sexist and deeply regrettable. 

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